This blog by Oliver Burkeman made me chuckle. I totally agree that when you enjoy what you are doing, you are more productive. However, being self-employed, a business owner, or an entrepreneur, there will be lots of things that you will have to do that you won’t enjoy. So how do you keep yourself motivate to complete those tasks, especially when delegation isn’t an option?
What are you going to do with your time today?
Is the secret of productivity really just doing what you enjoy?
The problem with the genre of “life lessons from the world’s most successful entrepreneurs” is one of causal direction: just because Elon Musk works 120 hours a week, it doesn’t follow that if you work 120 hours a week, you’ll experience Musk’s success. (Whether or not Musk has an enviable life isn’t the point here; that depends on your enthusiasm for space travel and defaming cave divers.) Musk works insane hours because he wants to. We can argue about the psychological roots of that wanting: does it stem from a big-hearted desire to help humanity, or a pathological workaholism and desperation to prove himself? But either way, in some sense, Musk likes it; whereas if you tried to follow that schedule, you’d have to make yourself do it. The same applies to less extreme advice. “Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.
This clicked into place for me as I read about the hyper-productive German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, in a fascinating book called How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens (based on the intricate index card system Luhmann used to organise his knowledge). How did Luhmann publish 58 books and hundreds of articles – plus, impressively, several more books after his 1998 death, thanks to manuscripts he left behind? Because, said Luhmann, “I never force myself to do anything I don’t like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.” That sounds scandalously self-indulgent – except that, as Ahrens writes, “doesn’t it make much more sense that the impressive body of work was produced not in spite of the fact he never made himself do anything he didn’t feel like, but because of it?”
I’ve experimented with countless time-management techniques, but the results leave me forced to agree: by far the biggest predictor of whether something gets done is whether it’s fun to do. The secret of productivity is simple: just do what you enjoy.
Oh, you have some objections? Thought so. A big one is the fear that if we just let ourselves do what we enjoy, we’d waste (even more) hours each day on social media, or eating Nutella from the jar, instead of doing what mattered. There’s some limited truth to this: when you’re just beginning a session of challenging work, you often need to give yourself a push, reminding yourself you don’t need to “feel like” starting in order to start. But after that, it’s enjoyment that’ll sustain your motivation, not productivity techniques. Indeed, they can make things worse: if you tell yourself you must spend, say, four hours every day on a certain project, come hell or high water, you’re liable to turn something that once inspired you into something you can’t bear to do.
The other big objection is that countless people don’t have the luxury of enriching, meaningful work, so they can hardly organise their days by focusing on what feels good. This is true. But it’s not a problem with Luhmann’s enjoyment-based approach to productivity. It’s a problem with society – the kind of problem, in other words, that no productivity technique is ever going to fix.